Age Old Adventures: Israel

Thursday, March 6, 2014

In the last 3,000 years, we were about the last ones to discover Caesarea.
Having flown into Tel Aviv, we took a train into the city where we had booked an Air BnB apartment for one night. We found train, bus and taxi to take us there. No key as promised so we woke up the manager by calling on a borrowed cell phone. Turned out the key was hiding in a couch, not in the mailbox where we were told we would find it.
It was a bit of a shabby place but served its purpose.

The next morning, our first in Israel, we walked along the beach of the Mediterranean Sea to Old Jaffa – a beautiful sea port, with thick walls and crooked little streets.
After a shake of fresh oranges, melon and banana, we collected our luggage and took a small bus (almost too small for our large backpacks) to the bus station where we headed north to the kibbutz. We had kindly been invited by someone we’ve never met, to stay here in a small cottage. Kibbutz Sdot Yam turned out to be a lovely park setting dotted with houses and schools. Lots of little children and dogs run rampant. Our little cottage is run down but cute – with a comfy bed and a tiny kitchen. We picked up soup, bread, tea and other essentials and love having our own little place here.

The beach is gorgeous. I even had a little swim. On Wednesday, we set out to explore the area and discovered that we are right in an area that has been highly contested by many civilizations.
Some 2,000 years ago, ruling Roman emperor Herod decided it was an ideal location for a port. He had walls and a fortress built here, and a complete city with baths, towers, an amphitheater and more.
Subsequently, Jews fought to control the city, and were conquered by Byzantine armies, who were overthrown by Muslims, and then by Crusaders. Others came and went. Walls fell down. Towers caved in and were restored. Synagogues made way for cathedrals that were razed in favor of mosques.

Now, the crumbling walls and remnants of this age old city called Caeasarea, is in the backyard of Kibbutz Sdot Yam. We walked along the old seats of the amphitheater and the arena where chariots used to race. Marble columns lay strewn among building blocks of coral.

Roman columns

A great movie and a fantastic hologram display explained the history to us and introduced us to rabbis and emperors throughout the ages. Caesarea is a National Park we much enjoyed.

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Bethlehem: no manger, no inn – no room at Starbucks!

The best advise we can now give anyone wanting to visit Bethlehem: don’t book a tour!
For months we had studied websites and travel guides. We had read all about the many different companies and the types of tours you can book. You can choose from one day tours or half days. Each advertises with the fact that “all admissions are included but not lunch.” The average tour costs between US $75 and US $100.- per person.

Since we couldn’t decide, we figured we’d wait till the last minute and book something once we got to Jerusalem. Once here, we discovered that we could simply take the “Arab bus”, just outside the Damascus Gate and a five minute walk from our hotel, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem for 8 shekels (less than $3). There ARE no admissions anywhere. We did not have to move in a large group of tourists all day. Apparently the line-ups for individuals are shorter than for tour groups AND a shop owner told us “You are on your own? No tour bus? No guide? Ah! I gave you 30% discount!” So this day cost us a lot less than if we had opted for a tour.

We had fun going on the bus with many locals but also a fair number of westerners. On the way out of Jerusalem we noticed lots of Orthodox Jews wearing traditional large black hats, long curls, prayer shawls. It is Shabbat so many were walking along the streets. When it rains lightly, out came large plastic covers for the huge fur hats.

Bethlehem is more like a suburb, and very similar to Jerusalem in that it is a big, crowded city with lots of traffic. No cute little manger or inn in sight!
Not even signs to Manger Square. But we only walked the wrong way once.
It rained for a few minutes and the age-old streets are slippery as ice – smooth worn stones.
Lots of little shops selling nuts, sponges, leather ware, spices. One man with an enormous jug was selling Turkish coffee in the street.

Manger Square, Bethlehem

We made it to Manger square where there are many shops, restaurants, a bank, even a Starbucks! There are some old remnants of walls but much is newly build.
The grotto where Jesus is said to have been born, is covered by a church that has seen different religions and has been restored numerous times. Like many historic places, this slightly diminishes its authenticity for us. But the people are so interesting to watch. I noticed today how similar Catholic nuns in their long black robes and white headgear, look to Palestinian women who often wear the same long black skirts and tight, white head dress.

We watch wood carvers make handmade items like smoothly sanded crosses and mangers from olive wood. And we admired beautiful Palestinian hand embroidered clothing. Even though there is nothing Christmassy in sight, in Bethlehem, it felt very special to walk along these thousands year old streets, among people whose work, food and clothing does not seem to have changed a whole lot since then. Except for cell phones and wifi everywhere. And halogen bulbs in the old candelabra of the Church of the Nativity – signs of the times.